Wednesday, September 28, 2011
ELEPHANT MAN, THE
(October 1980, U.S.)
For some inexplicable reason, whenever I think about David Lynch's THE ELEPHANT MAN, the first thing I think about is not his impressive career, but rather THE EMPIRE STRIKES BACK (Exucse me?? Care to explain that one, Eric??). Well, it's not only because the film was released at the same time the second STAR WARS film was still going very strong, but it's also because during the previous Spring of 1980, the lead in the Broadway version of THE ELEPHANT MAN had been played by none other than Mark Hamill (Luke Skywalker) himself. Okay, I didn't say that my reasons would make a whole LOT of sense, but it's the way my twisted mind sometimes works.
Now is it just me or does Mel Brooks (producer of this film) have some kind of strange attraction to stories of human deformity? I mean, the guy produced the 1986 remake of THE FLY, too! Well, be that as it may, his venture into a non-comic tale couldn't have been more to the opposite side of his traditional comedic coin. The true story of John Merrick (his name was Joseph in real life) is disturbing, shocking, depressing and touching at the right times. David Lynch's choice to shoot 19th Century England is black and white is visual cinematic genius, to say the least. John Hurt plays Merrick, but you'd never know it without properly checking the film credits. In this story, Merrick is discovered in a Victorian freak show by surgeon Dr. Frederick Treves (played by Anthony Hopkins) and is so deformed that he must wear a hood and cap whenever he's in public. Treves is professionally intrigued by Merrick's condition and brings him to his hospital so that he can examine him. The ward nurses are horrified by Merrick's appearance, so Treves places him in a quarantine room under the watchful care of the formidable matron, Mrs. Mothershead (played by Wendy Hiller). As Merrick learns to speak and slowly discover his own identity as a man, it begins to appears as if he was rescued from the cruelty of one freak show only to be substituted for a kinder, more civilized, acceptable version of the same freak show. Merrick is still being shown off in public and other people are managing to benefit greatly from his presence. At one point in the film, even Dr. Treves himself questions his motives and loosely compares himself to those who had previously mistreated Merrick.
You recall earlier when I used the word "touching" as one of the many adjectives for this film? That can easily be claimed when the famous actress Mrs. Madge Kendal (played by Mrs. Mel Brooks herself, Anne Bangcroft) arranges an evening at the local musical theatre. Presented in full formal attive, Merrick rises in the Royal Box to a standing ovation of London's society, having had the performance dedicated to him from Mrs Kendal. That night, back at the hospital, he lies down (something he's not supposed to do given the enourmous size of his head) on his bed and dies peacefully, consoled by a vision of his mother whom we have frequently seen a photograph of during the course of the film.
Rest assured, though, as touching and moralizing as much of THE ELEPHANT MAN can be at times, it's still filled with the richly bizarre and surrealistic style of film making and storytelling that any David Lynch fan would come to expect from his work. And who can't give John Hurt the highest credit he deserves for being able to achieve such a performance under the heaviest, most grueling of make-up mask experiences? This is also the same man that gave birth to a small alien out of his stomach the year before in ALIEN (1979).
Favorite line or dialogue:
John Merrick: "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!"